Tomorrowland is Brad Bird's worst movie. Which, given he's only made fantastic movies up to this point (The Incredibles, Ghost Protocol, Ratatouille, The Iron Giant) isn't as harsh as it might sound. But calling it a disappointing mess of a movie – is. The most frustrating thing about Tomorrowland is seeing what Brad Bird and writer Damon Lindelof were going for, and how through unending, confusing plot teases and condescending dialogue we're left with a few neat electrons orbiting a lifeless emotional nucleus.
As you might have seen from the trailers, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) receives a pin that shows her the titular Tomorrowland, and she goes in search of it with the help of recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and grumpy ol' reluctant hero George Clooney as Frank Walker.
The movie opens with Frank and Casey talking to the audience from the future, with the gag of them about to get going (ie the movie) and it being cut short over and over. Although I found that joke irritating, the opening half hour is probably the best part of the movie as we spend a lot of time with young Frank. Through Frank we get to see not only the marvelous Tomorrowland, but through the eyes of a kid in the 1960's, which is the retro-future vision the movie is after, the “everything will be perfect!” utopian optimism of science fiction at that time. Then we move on to Casey in the modern day. She's smart (her last name is Newton, after all! Sorry, bit of a pet peeve. Was Jenny Einstein too obvious?), and more interestingly she's pro-active. She isn't asking “why is this happening?” in class, but “what can we do about it?” Then she's caught doing some sabotage at night (reminiscent of but not nearly as flashy as Sam Flynn in Tron: Legacy), leading her to find the pin on her way out of the police station.
Where it all starts to turn is when Casey investigates the origins of the pin and mysterious robots show up to throw our hero on her adventure with Athena. Although I enjoyed the early sections, the pacing has already slowed before this stop (with Casey's family, and present day Frank not showing up for a long time), so while this action scene was welcome, I wanted the story to get going. But following that, we are treated to a long talky car ride, the time spent dishing exposition and hand-holding the audience. This starts the pattern of walking us through every bit of story and ends any attempt at growth for Casey. Everything Casey is at the beginning and end is known from her first five minutes, and every action involves her being curious or clever when needed. Our only arc comes from Frank, who I mentioned takes a really long time to show up.
It'll be difficult to not compare action movies to Mad Max: Fury Road for some time. But, coming straight off of Fury Road, the old adage of “show don't tell” couldn't be more poignant. Whereas George Miller skillfully told his epic story with the action, using it to learn about his characters and world, Tomorrowland tells you around its action, eager to spell everything you just saw or are about to see out, rendering it redundant and confusing, with the same stop-start-stop pattern as the beginning, except between dialogue and action scenes. While there is a lot of talking, so much is left mysterious or unexplained that shouldn't have been, just to get us to the next scene.
Leading to Tomorrowland's biggest problem, the constant plot breadcrumbs. You might think “well plenty of mysteries and thrillers do that!” Sure do. But a good mystery is building more than the whodunit. You're getting a deep character story so you have weight when Agatha Shaggy pulls the mask off Old Man Kaiser Söze. Modern blockbusters feel the need to be purposefully vague and confusing to pull you into the next scene at the sacrifice of everything else, and when you get there it feels empty. Until the next tease! One of the biggest perpetrators of this is the writer of Tomorrowland, Damon Lindelof (Star Trek Into Darkness, Lost), but it's too easy to lay this solely on his shoulders. Brad Bird is a creator with a strong voice whose name is all over the writing credits. Unfortunately, the disconnect between intention and product is on both.
Something I noticed a lot of in Tomorrowland was the use of vague terms referring to unknowns as “its” and “things.” Here's an apt quote I saw recently pertaining to improv theater that fits too well: “Time vs Awesome. This is the term we use to describe the phenomenon where the longer you go without naming or resolving something in your scene, the better the pay-off has to be to satisfy the audience.” - Matt Powell. By the time I got to the “its” and “things”, I couldn't care less. Which is a shame, because when the plot is finally revealed, it's very interesting. I just wish it had shown up an hour earlier (along with Hugh Laurie) so we could have explored it. Before we have time to digest it, we dive into another action sequence, and then the conclusion.
It would be wrong not to mention how great those action scenes are shot, even if I wasn't invested in the characters. If you've seen Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, you know how well Bird's creative visual style translates to live-action. Shot for shot this could have been a Pixar cartoon and it's exciting as hell at times. Also, Raffey Cassidy brings a ton of charm and charisma to Athena, and if we would have gotten more between her and Frank there could have been something very special.
But in the end, Tomorrowland is forgettable, an average movie at best made by someone who should never settle for such and is a disheartening shame. Tomorrowland felt like watching a movie I had fond memories of as a kid and then went back to years later, only to be embarrassed. Which I expect a generation to do in 15-20 years.